Thankful for a Voice | A Blind Girl Speaks Out!

I don’t really know what happened.  I wasn’t that sick, but suddenly my voice just sort of left me, and a painful cough took its place.  For the last four days, I’ve been on strict vocal rest, which is difficult for a singer and a socializer.  I didn’t think about how it would impact my interactions with the public, however.

“I’m outside Panera.” I whispered into the phone, because that’s all I could manage.

“You’re where?  I can’t really hear you.”

“Outside the doors of the Panera!” I tried again, “I have a guide dog and I’m wearing a black coat.”

“Oh, I think I see you.  You have a dog?”

“Yes!” I replied, relieved that even if he hadn’t heard me he found me and I didn’t have to wait much longer in the 15 degree weather.

I got in the Lyft and got home, thank God, but my vocal issues had made it incredibly difficult to communicate with my driver to tell him where I was.

A similar thing happened a day later.  A gracious friend of mine volunteered to drive me to the pet store to pick up some emergency dog food for Prim.  We entered the pet store, and I was immediately struck by my hindered ability to scold my guide dog for trying to chase the cat she saw upon entry.  Turns out whispered commands to your dog to “leave it” when there is a cat right in front of their nose is really not that effective.

The kicker, though, was when we stopped at CVS on the way back to collect some soup and cough drops and other such necessary items.  Prim followed my friend into and throughout the store like a champ, and we found the things we needed without too much trouble.  When we arrived at the counter, I set my items down and waited as the cashier scanned them.

“Do you live with her?” The lady asked my friend.

“No, just a friend.” She replied.

“She agreed to drive me around tonight.” I added with a smile, though I felt my smile falter a little when I realized what had come out of my mouth was barely recognizable as spoken word.

“Who takes care of her then?”

“I take care of me.” I answered, patiently, still in a whisper.

“She said she takes care of herself.” The cashier observed in shock to my friend, and then to one of her coworkers as we left.

Yes, madam, that is what I said.  I take care of myself.  She clearly found that hard to believe, since I am blind.

I desired desperately to educate her.  I wanted to tell her that, not only do I care for myself, but I care for my guide dog, and sometimes, when necessary, my sighted friends too.  I wanted to say that blind people can live quite independently, with the right training and techniques.  I wanted to tell her that I’d been living on my own 12 hours drive from my family for almost 5 years now, since I moved to Tennessee at 18.  I wanted to tell her I’ve traveled internationally by myself three times, and within the U.S. hundreds of times… that I’d been white-water rafting, and rock climbing, and hiking, and horseback riding, and kayaking and jet skiing, and spelunking, and I’d sung, danced, and acted in operas and plays and musicals, had a bachelor’s degree, and was planning on moving internationally for a master’s.

But I couldn’t say any of that because I couldn’t talk.

I’ve been blind for 16 years now.  I’m pretty used to comments like the ones I heard at CVS last night.  I’ve learned to say something, but once that’s done, it’s all I can do.  Eventually, I just have to let it go and allow my life to be the proof, but I felt robbed of that power yesterday, of my ability to advocate through speech.  It upset me, but mostly it made me thankful that, on the regular day-to-day, I do have a voice.  I can speak up to defend my own freedom of independence and the freedom of other blind people to live the lives they want.  I can share my experiences and challenge a sighted world to raise their expectations for the blind.

Not only do I have a voice on an individual, physical level, but also on a macro, socio-political-economic level.  As an American citizen with first amendment rights to free speech, I can write articles like these to spread the word throughout this entire vast country that blind people ARE capable.  I can vote for policy and policy makers that I think will advance the rights and privileges of blind Americans.  I can show employers that there is a valuable workforce of competent, passionate people that are currently being largely ignored because of their blindness.  I can tell our nation that blind people are a people without physical sight, but not a people without vision, or drive, or ingenuity, or skill, or, as I’m pointing out here, a voice.

Today is January 4th, a day many in the blind community know as Louis Braille’s birthday.  Braille should have been as life changing to the blind as the invention of the printing press was for the sighted a few hundred years earlier.  I say “should have been”, because while Braille’s invention did a great deal to change the state of blind people, and loose them from the chains of poverty and dependency, it hasn’t done enough.  According to a study from Cornell University, only 42% of visually impaired Americans ages 21-64 were employed in 2015, and that is a high estimate given that the associated unemployment rate did not account for those blind Americans who were not actively participating in the workforce (Erickson).  The National Federation of the Blind reports that 29% of the same population in the same year were living under the poverty line (Statistical Facts About Blindness in the United States), as compared to 13.5% in the general population (United States Census Bureau).  Those statistics start to paint a picture of the devastating impact that negative perceptions of blindness have on our success and thriving as a segment of society.

I’m tired of being told I can’t, and I’m thankful that I have a voice to reply, “I can, I do, and I will!”

 

Works Cited:

Erickson, W., Lee, C., von Schrader, S. “Disability Statistics.” The American Community Survey (ACS), Cornell University Yang-Tan Institute, 2017, Ithaca, NY, http://www.disabilitystatistics.org/reports/acs.cfm?statistic=2

“Statistical Facts About Blindness in the United States.” NFB, National Federation of the Blind, 12/2017, nfb.org/blindness-statistics

United States Census Bureau. “Income and Poverty in the United States: 2016.” Report Number: P60-259, Jessica L. Semega, Kayla R. Fontenot, and Melissa A. Kollar, U.S. Census Bureau, Sept. 12, 2017, http://www.census.gov/library/publications/2017/demo/p60-259.html

 

Thankful for Accessible Technology | 30 Days of Gratitude, Day 6

Sometimes, it’s fun to envision what life would have been like a hundred or more years ago.  Imagine a life without digital media, for example, or consider how different transportation was when cars had only just been invented.  What interests me, though, is how life must have been different for the blind.

Some blind people did live independently, had children, and held jobs, like the famous hymn writer Fanny Crosby.  But what was it like?

On the one hand, I’m a bit jealous.  Any society before the invention of cars must have been a great deal more pedestrian friendly, and therefore, blind-friendly, even in the absence of modern infrastructure.  On the other hand, I wonder how blind people managed without ways to independently access printed materials around them, or easily produce them on their own.

I’ve written a few songs in my time—it’s hard to avoid when you live in music city—but Fanny Crosby had over 8000 hymns published!  Then, she would have had to memorize all of her texts and music, written it down in braille and had it transcribed, dictated it to a sighted person to pen them, or penned them herself.  Of course, the only way she could have accessed them again would be through her memory, braille, or a sighted reader.  Evidently, her memory was impeccable.  According to the website I referenced earlier, she memorized five chapters of the Bible a week.

I definitely do not exercise my memory quite that often or to that extent, so perhaps that’s another advantage that antiquity has over modernity for blind folk.  Otherwise, I’m thankful that now a days, accessible technology means that I can easily record music (even as I write it) on my phone, type the lyrics into my computer, review what I have written, and share them with sighted friends, all independently and with very little extra effort on my part.

I am especially thankful for the way assistive tech has made the bible available to the blind in a way it never has been before.  I don’t have to carry volumes and volumes of braille bibles around with me to have constant access to the word of God, nor do I have to have it read to me and memorize five chapters a week, though there’s no doubt that would be a profitable exercise.  But no.  All I have to do is have a charged iPhone with a wifi connection, safari or a bible app, and voila.  The whole word of God is at my fingertips…

“Open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of your law.” (Psalm 119:18)

He has made his word known to us, and not only known, but accessible for study, teaching, comfort, evangelism, truth.  Accessible technology means I, along with other blind people, get to behold the wondrous things of his law by myself, on my own time, in essentially whatever format I choose, and whichever book or verse I prefer to study.  I do not think there is any more valuable gift.

And I will lead the blind in a way that they do not know, in paths that they have not known I will guide them. I will turn the darkness before them into light, the rough places into level ground. These are the things I do, and I do not forsake them. (Isaiah 42:16)

Eight Things I Will Miss About Being A Full-Time White Cane User

I admit it. Me and the white stick have a bit of a rough history. Stories of losing them in rivers and storm drains aside, the canes of my youth were mostly abused in the fact that they were neglected.  I did not often use it as a child and teenager, and when I did it was only in preparation for getting a guide dog as soon as I turned 16. I hated the cane in those days… in fact, I can honestly say I had a healthy disdain for it until quite recently. Throughout my college years, I grew to accept my cane as a useful piece of equipment, but it was still one that I preferred never to use unless forced by circumstance.

Over the last several months though, since I essentially hung up the harness in the spring, my grudging respect for my cane has developed into an all out appreciation, even love.  Yes, I know. People who know me will be falling on the floor in shock at this, but there are things I will actually miss about being a full time white cane user.  Here are a few of them.

1. Sprinting everywhere I go

As a cane user, I get to choose exactly how fast I walk and the fashion in which I walk. I don’t need to worry about paws being stepped on or convince my guide dog that it is more fun to run everywhere. I love being able to grab my cane and take off at high speeds, all while hopping, skipping, dancing, and generally doing something relatively” productive with my sometimes excessive amounts of energy. If you are concerned that this is not safe you are probably correct and will be happy to know that I am picking up the harness handle again in one day’s time. (although when I get that urge to burn off some Shea craziness, the cane is coming out)

2. My Cane Doesn’t Get Distracted

Guide dogs are amazing creatures, but at the end of the day, they are dogs, and they sometimes get sidetracked on the job (squirrel!). My cane, on the other hand, never barks at dogs, lunges after a cat, or goes for food on the ground, and I’ve gotta say, that makes a walk in the park much more like a walk in the park, and less like a rollercoaster ride.

3. My Cane is A Cheap Date

I don’t have to feed, groom, pick-up after, buy toys for, or pay the medical expenses of my cane.  Of course, I am absolutely willing and love to do those things for my guide dog, because it is the least I can do to repay her for the work and affection she gives me, but it *has* been an inexpensive several weeks.  Thanks cane.

4. No dog hair

Man I love having a guide dog, and I love having a dog in general, but it is awfully nice not to have to constantly lint roll and swiffer every inch of my existence to keep myself and my living space looking presentable… my clothes will be covered in yellow or black hair again in a matter of days though, so I obviously don’t care all *THAT* much.

5. No Muddy Paws

My dog goes everywhere with me in all sorts of weather and all sorts of environments… that means muddy paws in wet weather, and paws full of cement dust when we walk through construction sites… neither of which I love when tracked into my apartment.  Easily solved with a damp towel at the door, but not something I have to fool with at all with my cane.

6. Not having to worry about being denied from restaurants and ubers because of my guide dog

Our society has made a great deal of progress with public access for guide and service dog users, but it is still not uncommon for me to experience discrimination because of the presence of my guide dog. That, for me, is not something that outweighs the benefits of having a guide, but it is nice to travel without that worry in the back of my mind. No one is going to stop me from entering a business or Lyft with the proclamation that “no white canes” are allowed, or that they are “deathly afraid” of white canes… at least, it hasn’t happened to me yet.

7. If My Cane Get’s Stepped On, It’s Okay

Public transit, restaurants, concerts, church services, crowded, narrow spaces often mean that paws, tail, and nose are in danger of being stepped on.  Fortunately this only happened a couple of times to Oleta, mostly her paws, but the only reason it didn’t happen more often than that was because I was always hovering over her with my feet and sometimes hands strategically placed to guard her from harm.  My cane doesn’t have nerve endings, so as long as it doesn’t get actually snapped in half, we’re good.

8. Hitting things

Honestly, it’s kind of satisfying to hit things with a 58 inch pole all day.  The tapping and occasional clanging of a cane used to bother me a great deal, but I’ve learned to embrace the aggression and the noise, and sometimes be a bit more noisy and aggressive than strictly necessary, just because:

A. it’s fun,

B. I was a music major and find different sounds interesting, and

C. It makes a particular person in my life really mad, which is hilarious. 🙂

Good news is I don’t have to kiss every one of these things goodbye forever on Wednesday.  The cane, like the dog guide, is a tool in a tool box, and if I feel the need to hang up the harness for a few hours and pick up the cane, I get to do that, and I am glad I appreciate that option now.